Lessons from France under Louis XIV and XV

Louis XIV ruled from 1643 to 1715. He had great physical endurance for long hours of work and entertainment. He came to power when the country was going through economic hard times. Bad weather and wars damaged agricultural production leading to food shortages and financial difficulties. At the same time all French classes made demands: Peasants demanded rights, nobility demanded more power and the monarch demanded that the peasants and nobles fall in line. This jockeying created conditions for the emergence of absolute rulers.

Absolutism represented a form of government in which rulers exercised absolute power over their subjects: controlling government, religious, judiciary and military institutions as well as economic policy and culture. To achieve this goal, the ruler tried to eliminate all competition in the kingdom.

Louis XIV became an absolute ruler or a dictator because he believed in unquestioned authority. He believed that God had made him king of France and that he was God’s earthly ruler. Put differently, Louis ruled by the will of God (divine right) and was answerable only to God. He was also the owner of France hence the term “L’etat, c’est moi” (I am the state). He chose the sun as his emblem to represent his power and he was called “The Sun King”
He did not trust the nobility. He served as his own prime minister and marginalized the nobility. He ruled the countryside through a large body of agents –intendants – who collected taxes, judged cases and recruited soldiers and weakened the nobility in the process.

Affairs of state including finances were his private domain and in all things he was sovereign because his word was final. He deliberately picked his ministers from the middle class to keep the aristocracy out of power. He nullified the powers of French institutions that might challenge his authority. Parliament was ignored and never met. He exercised absolute power by using an administrative order that authorized imprisonment or exile of French citizens without trial.
Peasants who numbered 95 percent of total French population were taxed heavily and retained a mere 20 percent of their income besides forced labor on public works. Idle people were rounded up and conscripted into the army or kept in workhouses. Rebels were executed or forced to work as slaves.

The king’s propensity to spend was staggering. The construction of the new palace at Versailles cost between 10 and 20 percent of the national budget and sixty percent of royal tax revenue was spent on his courts. He loved splendor, magnificence and profusion. He encouraged his noblemen to spend heavily in order to make them more royal.

The Sun King expanded his army and fought many wars to increase French power and advance her frontiers. He fought four major wars on a worldwide scale from 1667 to 1714. To curb his aggressive drive, Europe united and France was dealt a heavy military blow and suffered a series of crushing defeats. France was forced to return all the land she had taken over except Strasbourg. As noted earlier, to furnish his wars and his lavish palaces, he forced his common people to pay heavy taxes, in some cases diverting funds for hunger relief and other benefits to fund wars.

The burden of taxation seriously impoverished the French taxpayers especially peasants who were disproportionately taxed because the nobility and the clergy were exempt from most taxes and the wealthy middle-class evaded many of them.

When he died in 1715 Louis XIV left Louis XV his grand-son successor great political, economic and religious challenges.  
Louis XV reigned from 1715 to 1774 at a time when the French people were demanding greater participation in government and rejecting absolute rule. Resentment was very strong towards special privileges of the ruling class. The nobility that did not pay taxes received subsidized pensions from government revenue raised from the peasants.

The highest government offices in the land were reserved for the aristocracy and promotions were based on political connections rather than on merit.
Life at the court was extravagant and wasteful of public funds. There was a lack of justice and the king imprisoned his subjects at will. Civil servants were tyrants many of them serving their own interests. Corruption and inequity worsened under his rule.

Like his grandfather, Louis XV was heavily involved in expensive wars. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 resulted in the loss of most of France’s overseas territories. The king’s heavy expenditure left an insolvent government when he died in 1774.

The economic, social and political problems left behind by Louis XV laid the foundation that led to the king’s removal from power and later to his execution, the abolition of the monarchy and the start of the French Revolution. The peasants who had been impoverished, hungry and severely marginalized played a significant role in the Revolution of 1789.

In England and the United States the elites brought down the governments in their revolutionary struggles. In France the peasants pulled down the old regime and set up not only a new government but a new society as well.